Tonya began by telling us a bit about her personal background. She's a Canadian raised in Trinidad, and, she says, "When I get angry my accent comes out." This background influences her writing. She says she loves to read postcolonial fiction, and lists V.S. Naipaul, Michael Anthony, and Merle Hodge's "Crick Crack Monkey" among her influences. She says she discovered fantasy fiction when she was 20 years old, via a Dragonlance book, and dived right in, but that Romance is not her genre. She also mentioned that Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart was important to her.
"I use language a lot," she says. She explained that the language of the English Caribbean is called "Patois" while the language of the Spanish and French Caribbean is called "Creole," and that these are distinct dialects. The Virgin Islands have their own dialect with distinct names for food, etc. A story of hers called "The Ace of Knives" appeared in Postscripts to Darkness involved code-switching, and she was honored when Nisi Shawl used it in a workshop. She also had a story called "Shoe Man" at Expanded Horizons, and Akashic Books published a story called "Home Again Home Again Jiggety Jig." "Through Dreams She Moves" appears in the Uncommon Minds anthology.
Tonya doesn't give up on her stories. She described a story that she had put away for years, after it was rejected, but that she found a new theme for and now wants to find home for. She told us about discovering a book called The World is Sound in a New Age bookstore, and how the book gave us ideas about commonalities between Indian music and jazz, such as the concept of a mentor teacher. She also says she wanted to write about ancient Egypt, so she brought that in. Her mother had given her a book on ancient Egypt when she was very small, and she has loved it ever since.
I asked Tonya about poetry, since she doesn't just write prose, and poetry is evident in her short stories. "I don't really think of myself as a poet, but poetry comes out of me anyway," she says. She's had success with it, as when she took 4th place in a writing competition about the perceptions of mental illness. She explored dealing with family who want to tell you how to live but won't do research on your condition. She says poetry intersects with her short fiction because writing is lyrical, and music is her thing. She wanted to be a singer/songwriter.
Tonya has several stories in set an alternate Toronto in which every person develops a special "gift" at puberty. These gifts ary widely, and societal systems are in place to help people with their gifts, such as if they need to leave their homes, etc. One guy's gift allows him to charm them with words, and so he becomes a politician. One woman doesn't have a gift, and that makes her a freak ("Superfreak"), and also causes her to be a target for harassment and abuse. Mental health and abuse occur often in Tonya's work, in part because of abusive elements in her own family background. She's very passionate about talking about these topics.
Tonya told us that her story, "Through Dreams She Moves" was inspired by "On Being Undone by a Light Breeze" by Vajra Chandrasekera. It inspired her to try using a combination of first- and second-person narration. Her story was longlisted for an award but she's had a hard time finding a home for it. One of the other features of Tonya's story is that each scene starts with a poetic envoi of three lines. I asked her what the appeal of this world with its people and its "gifts" was, and she said "it lends itself to plot." She told us about another forthcoming story in which a person goes to a hostel and breaks down, with all of their belongings in garbage bags. Each story allows her to explore different elements of this same world, such as homelessness, trauma, cultural isolation, code-switching, self-harm, etc.
"Through Dreams She Moves" arose from asking how people who are sick in this world get healed.
"A Charmed Life" arose from asking what it would be like to be in a position of leadership in this world. Sometimes the gifts can intersection.
"Shoe Man," she says, came from an idea she had when Tade Thomson shared a picture on social media of a shoe with teeth. It turned into a vignette that needed to be expanded, looking at homeless and mental illness.
"Superfreak" features a woman with no gift at all. Tonya apparently felt her way into the story before deciding what the protagonist's gift was, and only quite late realized she didn't have one. That reversal makes her a freak, and Tonya asks, "How would you survive?"
Tonya told us the abuse and mental health themes have been part of her own life for a while. A story of hers called "The Sweater" appeared in the Malahat Review (a Canadian literary magazine); she said "that was the first time I put my life on paper." She told us that she asked people "Should I put this out there?" but got some excellent advice that yes, she should.
Our discussant Wendy Delmater joined us because she is a huge fan of Tonya's work (and editor at Abyss and Apex). She urged Tonya to tell us about her upcoming novel. Tonya started by telling us that the Caribbean is a bona fide Afro-Centric society. "We eat roti the way everyone else eats pizzas." She suggested we go to Trinidad if we wanted to see a real melting pot. They have a distinct language (several, in fact) and distinct folklore including vampiric creatures called soucouyant. They can go through keyholes. To become a soucouyant, a woman makes a deal with the devil, hides her skin, and flies off in a ball of flame. She looks for babies to suck their blood, or in her story, sometimes animals. If you surround your bed with salt, she gets stuck having to count every grain.
The protagonist in the novel is a soucouyant. She meets an East Indian woman who was turned into a Western-style vampire. They live together and cause trouble, but the soucouyant develops a conscience and forms a grief counseling group to help the victims of the vampire, who went on a killing spree. One of the characters is a rape victim who wants to have her memories erased, but this is not as simple a question as it sounds. The soucouyant gets mixed up with more powerful supernaturals who want her to step into line.
It sounds like Tonya has got some super-exciting things coming up, and I urge you to look for her stories (some of which are linked in this post).
Tonya, thank you so much for joining us at short notice! It was a pleasure to talk with you about your work. Our next hangout will be today at 10am Pacific, and we will be discussing Colorism. We have quite a number of discussants lined up for this, but if you can't get in, you can always watch our YouTube live stream. I hope you can make it!